TIME Research

Study Finds Possible Association Between Autism and Air Pollution

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Research suggests that early exposure to air pollution may have wide-ranging negative effects

A new study from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that exposure to fine particulate air pollution from pregnancy up and through the first two years of childhood may be linked with developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health conducted “a population-based, case-control study” of families living in southwestern Pennsylvania, which included children with and without ASD, reports Science Daily.

The research team was then able to estimate an individual’s exposure to specific categories of air pollution based on where their mothers lived before, during and after pregnancy.

“There is increasing and compelling evidence that points to associations between Pittsburgh’s poor air quality and health problems, especially those affecting our children and including issues such as autism spectrum disorder and asthma,” said Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, which funded the research project.

However, the members of the study stressed that their findings “reflect an association” but does not ultimately prove causality.

[Science Daily]

TIME Innovation

Why Doubling the Value of Food Stamps Helps Families Eat Better

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Want to help poor families get healthy food? Double the value of food stamps.

By Jay Cassano in Fast Co.Exist

2. How training service dogs is giving veterans a reason to live.

By Chris Peak in Time

3. Can saltwater quench our growing thirst?

By Brian Bienkowski in Ensia

4. High school sets up autistic kids to fail when they reach college. Here’s how to fix the problem.

By Noel Murray in Vox

5. The next big idea for ending poverty is thinking small.

By Jacob Lief in Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Research

Why Autism Is Different in the Brains of Girls Than in Boys

The reasons why girls are less often diagnosed may be both biological and social

Autism, already a mysterious disorder, is even more puzzling when it comes to gender differences. For every girl diagnosed with autism, four boys are diagnosed, a disparity researchers don’t yet fully understand.

In a new study published in the journal Molecular Autism, researchers from the UC Davis MIND Institute tried to figure out a reason why. They looked at 112 boys and 27 girls with autism between ages 3 and 5 years old, as well as a control sample of 53 boys and 29 girls without autism. Using a process called diffusion-tensor imaging, the researchers looked at the corpus callosum — the largest neural fiber bundle in the brain — in the young kids. Prior research has shown differences in that area of the brain among people with autism.

They found that the organization of these fibers was different in boys compared with girls, especially in the frontal lobes, which play a role in executive functions. “The sample size is still limited, but this work adds to growing body of work suggesting boys and girls with autism have different underlying neuroanatomical differences,” said study author Christine Wu Nordahl, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, in an email.

In other preliminary research presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research, or IMFAR, in Salt Lake City, the study authors showed that when girls and boys with autism are compared with typically developing boys and girls, the behavioral differences between girls with autism and the female controls are greater than the differences among the boys. Nordahl says this suggests that girls can be more severely affected than boys.

A study earlier this year by a separate group found notable differences in symptoms between autistic boys and girls, which could be one of the reasons autism in girls sometimes goes unnoticed or is diagnosed late. Girls generally display less obvious behavioral symptoms at a young age compared with boys, the researchers found.

One of the reasons females with autism are less understood than males is that most research studies do not have equal numbers of boys and girls, says Nordahl. “This is not surprising, given that there are so many more males with autism than females,” she says. “We need to do a better job of trying to recruit females with autism into our studies so that we can fully explore differences between males and females with autism.”

Nordahl says understanding gender differences in autism affects how kids are diagnosed, as well as how they are treated. Understanding what biological differences may be at work can ultimately lead to a better understanding of autism and the best interventions for treatment.

TIME Research

Why Girls With Autism Are Diagnosed Later Than Boys

They present symptoms differently than boys, which may result in missed diagnoses

A new study looking at gender differences among children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show that girls have different, less obvious symptoms compared to boys, which could be why they are generally diagnosed later.

“There are clearly major gender differences in prevalence of autism, with more than four boys being diagnosed for every girl. However, we have little understanding of the roots of these differences,” says study author Dr. Paul Lipkin, director of the Interactive Autism Network at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. “Are they biological, social, diagnostic, or tied to other factors, such as screening systems?”

Lipkin and his colleagues looked at data on people with ASD and their family members using the Institute’s online registry of 50,000 people. Almost 10,000 of them had reported how old they were when they were first diagnosed, and about 5,000 had undergone a test to identify their severity of social impairment. The study author’s results were presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego.

The researchers found that in general, girls were diagnosed with ASD later than boys. On average, girls were diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder—an autism spectrum disorder that impacts basic skill development—at age four, and boys were diagnosed with the same disorder at about 3.8 years. Girls were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome around age 7.6 years, while boys were diagnosed around 7.1 years. Interestingly, the researchers noticed that the symptoms reported among the children differed by gender, too. Girls tended to have more issues with the ability to read social cues, and boys had more mannerism-related issues like repetitive behaviors including hand flapping. When boys were older, around age 10-15, they had more social issues like trouble communicating in social settings than girls did.

“These findings suggest that boys’ behavior are more apparent than the girls, with the potential for girls being more difficult to recognize,” says Lipkin. “Since the problems experienced by girls are in social cognition and require social opportunities, they are much more likely to be unnoticed until the elementary school years.”

The researchers say their findings suggest that the symptom differences may not only lead to delayed diagnosis in girls, but potentially missed diagnoses altogether. Understanding the various ways children with ASD present may lead to a better understanding of the disorders.

TIME medicine

Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism, Even in Kids at Higher Risk

"We are able to look at the vaccines and show there is no association with autism"

In the latest study on the vaccines, researchers find even more evidence that childhood immunizations aren’t linked to autism.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a group led by Dr. Anjali Jain of the Lewin Group, a health care consulting organization, found that brothers and sisters of children with autism were not at any higher risk of developing the disorder if they were vaccinated compared with brothers and sisters of those without autism.

Numerous studies have found an increased risk of autism among those with older siblings with the condition, and some parents who believe that their older child’s autism is connected to vaccinations, specifically the MMR vaccine, have been reluctant to immunize their younger children. Indeed, Jain found that vaccination rates among siblings of autistic children were lower, at about 86% at 5 years, compared with 92% among those without autistic brothers or sisters.

But among the 95,000 children with older siblings included in the study, children who received the MMR and had autistic older siblings were no more likely to develop autism than children who were vaccinated and didn’t have any autistic older siblings. In fact, the relative risk of autism among those with older autistic brothers or sisters was lower if they were vaccinated compared with those who were not vaccinated.

“Our study confirmed that in kids with older siblings who we know are at increased risk of developing autism themselves, those kids are being vaccinated less,” says Jain. “But in the kids who did develop autism who were vaccinated, there was no increased risk from the vaccine compared to kids who did not get the vaccine.”

The results, she says, should put to rest any concerns that parents of autistic children might have that vaccinating their younger kids will somehow increase their risk of developing autism. The large size of the study, and the fact that vaccination and autism information wasn’t collected for purposes of a vaccines-and-autism study but as part of a larger health insurance database, also reinforce the strength of the findings. (The Lewin Group is an editorially independent part of Optum company, which collected the data.)

“We may not understand what is causing autism in these kids or families,” says Jain. “There could be a host of both genetic and environmental factors. But we are able to look at the vaccines themselves and show there is no association with autism.”

Read next: HPV Vaccine May Work for People Who Already Had the Virus

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Australia

Australian School Under Investigation for Putting Child With Autism in ‘Cage’

The incident has signaled an urgent need for a national standard for autism education in mainstream schools, say mental health experts

Australian education officials are investigating a Canberra school where a boy with autism was allegedly placed in a cage-like structure.

The two-meter by two-meter area made of pool fencing was used as a “withdrawal space” for the ten-year-old pupil, reports ABC.

Local education minister Joy Burch has ordered a full independent inquiry and the school’s principal has been removed while the investigation takes place.

Dina Joseph, the director general of the ACT’s Education and Training Directorate, called the structure “entirely inappropriate and unacceptable” and that the school’s decision “raises so many questions.”

Education experts say the incident signals an urgent need for a national standard of autism education in mainstream schools.

“The truth is, children with autism are often put into education systems with very limited support,” said Autism Awareness Australia director Nicole Rogerson.

Though education experts say calm areas where children with autism can go if they feel overwhelmed or agitated can be beneficial, physically separating a child in a restrictive space was not standard practice, and many experts favor positive reinforcement instead. If used, calm areas can simply be a different seat in the classroom or the use of headphones.

“Under our philosophy of positive behaviors, we wouldn’t ever use such a practice [as a cage],” Trevor Clark, the national director for education for Autism Spectrum Australia, told ABC. “The teachers in schools must understand autism, they must understand the challenges and then of course accommodate the classroom.”

TIME Parenting

7 Things Every Kid with Autism Wishes You Knew

Therapist with autistic boy
WILL & DENI MCINTYRE; Getty Images/Photo Researchers RM

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day

Every kid is different. So is every individual with autism. But if you’re looking to connect with a child living with autism, Ellen Notbohm, author of Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew, and the mother of an autistic son, says keeping these things in mind can help.

My senses don’t work like yours. For a child living with autism, the sensory impressions of daily life—noises from machines, , the flickering of fluorescent lights, cooking smells— “can be downright painful,” Nothbohm writes. Remember, a world that seems unremarkable to you may be overwhelming to them.

I’m a concrete thinker. “Idioms, puns, nuances, inferences, metaphors, allusions and sarcasm are lost” on children with autism, Nothbohm writes. Instead, communicate with literal language.

I’m a visual thinker. Children with autism have a harder time absorbing spoken words. But they can study visual information until they really understand it. So “show me how to do something rather than just telling me,” Nothbohm writes. “Lots of patient practice helps me learn.”

I have many ways to communicate. Words are not always the best way for a child with autism to interact or convey his or her needs. “But be alert for body language, withdrawal, agitation, or other signs,” Nothbohm writes. “They’re there.”

Focus on what I can do, not what I can’t. Just like anyone else, it’s hard for children with autism to learn when they’re made to feel like they’re not measuring up. But “look for my strengths and you will find them,” Nothbohm writes. “There is more than one right way to do most things.”

Help me join in. Children with autism may seem as if they don’t want to participate in social activities. But in fact, they may just be unsure about how to join in. “Teach me how to play with others,” Nothbohm writes. “Encourage other children to invite me to play along. I might be delighted to be included.”

I’m more than my autism. “If you think of me as just one thing,” Nothbohm writes, “you run the danger of setting up expectations that may be too low.” The reality? “Neither you nor I yet know what I may be capable of.”

Every week TIME gathers up the best parenting stories in one handy newsletter. It’s free. Subscribe here.

TIME

There’s a Reason Everything on Facebook Is Blue Today

The statue of Christ the Redeemer is lit up in blue for the "Light It Up Blue" campaign to mark the World Autism Awareness Day in Rio de Janeiro
Pilar Olivares—Reuters The statue of Christ the Redeemer is lit up in blue for the "Light It Up Blue" campaign to mark the World Autism Awareness Day in Rio de Janeiro April 1, 2015.

What is #LIUB?

Earlier this week, Jay Z asked a group of musicians to turn their Twitter avatars bright blue to promote his new music streaming service, Tidal.

But on Thursday, social media users might be noticing that many of their friends, family and, yes, favorite celebrities have decided to “Light It Up Blue” as well. And it doesn’t have anything to do with a paid music subscription service.

April 2 marks National Autism Day, and to raise awareness, Autism Speaks explains on its site, “Thousands of iconic landmarks, communities, businesses and homes across the globe unite by shining bright blue lights in honor of the millions of individuals and families around the world affected by autism.”

https://twitter.com/davidefaraone/status/583366419364122624

And, of course, people on social media are participating by posting photos of themselves sporting the color and pictures of loved ones who have autism, all with the hashtag #LIUB.

Even celebrity ambassadors Ronan Farrow and Carole King are getting in on the action:

This blue definitely doesn’t make you feel blue.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 16

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. There are no winners in a currency war, either. Here’s why the U.S. is carrying the burden of the global recovery.

By Mark Gilbert in Bloomberg News

2. Despite slow and censored Internet and the weakest mobile phone penetration in Latin America, Cuba is the land of opportunity for daring tech investors.

By Ramphis Castro in Re/code

3. Anyone with a smartphone can become a mobile environmental monitoring station.

By Brian Handwerk in Smithsonian Magazine

4. Permanent, easily accessible criminal records are holding back too many Americans. It’s time to “ban the box.”

By Ruth Graham in the Boston Globe

5. Autism Village is an app that helps families find autism-friendly businesses.

By Olga Khazan in The Atlantic

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 9

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Take a data dive to see how a ring of suburban poverty is appearing around America’s revived cities.

By Luke Juday at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia

2. Don’t worry about Russia giving up on nuclear cooperation and the International Space Station.

By Lisa Saum-Manning in U.S. News & World Report

3. Scientists reverse-engineered social networks to learn how to fight HIV among homeless youth by word of mouth.

By Jessica Leber in Fast Co.Exist

4. A Pyrenees pipeline could weaken Putin’s grip on European energy.

By Paul Ames in Global Post

5. For developmentally disabled kids, the benefits of organized sports are huge.

By Darrin Steele in Quartz

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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